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Thunderbirds (TV series)

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Title: Thunderbirds (TV series)  
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Subject: Alan Tracy, Thunderbirds (TV series), Science fiction on television, Scott Mitchell (darts player), Criterion Theatre (Coventry)
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Thunderbirds (TV series)

Series title,
Genre Science fiction, disaster,
action, adventure
Created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson
Written by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, Tony Barwick, Alan Fennell, Dennis Spooner, Alan Pattillo, Donald Robertson
Directed by Desmond Saunders, David Elliott, David Lane, Alan Pattillo
Voices of Peter Dyneley, Shane Rimmer, David Holliday, Matt Zimmerman, David Graham, Ray Barrett, Sylvia Anderson, Christine Finn, Jeremy Wilkin, Charles Tingwell, Paul Maxwell, John Tate
Opening theme "The Thunderbirds March"
Composer(s) Barry Gray
Country of origin United Kingdom
Original language(s) English
No. of series 2
No. of episodes 32 (64 in half-hour format) (List of episodes)
Executive producer(s) Gerry Anderson (Series Two)
Producer(s) Gerry Anderson (Series One)
Reg Hill (Series Two)
Editor(s) Harry MacDonald, Harry Ledger, Peter Elliott
Cinematography John Read
Running time 50 minutes approx.
Production company(s) AP Films
Distributor ITC Entertainment
Original channel ATV
Picture format 35 mm film (VistaVision)[1]
4:3 aspect ratio
Audio format Mono
Original run 30 September 1965 (1965-09-30) – 25 December 1966 (1966-12-25)
Preceded by Stingray
Followed by Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons
Related shows Thunderbirds 2086
Turbocharged Thunderbirds
Thunderbirds Are Go!

Thunderbirds is a British science-fiction television series created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, made by their production company AP Films, and distributed by ITC Entertainment. Filmed between 1964 and 1966, it was produced using marionette puppetry combined with scale-model special effects sequences in a hybrid filming technique dubbed "Supermarionation". Two series and thirty-two 50-minute episodes were filmed; production ended after the Andersons' financial backer, Lew Grade, failed in his bid to sell the programme to American network television.

A follow-up to the earlier Supermarionation productions Thunderbird machines and launched from a secret base – Tracy Island – in the South Pacific Ocean. The main characters are IR's founder, the ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy, and his five adult sons, who pilot the Thunderbird machines.

Thunderbirds debuted in the UK on International Rescue Corps, takes its name from the series.

Widely considered the most popular and commercially successful series created by the Andersons,[3][4] Thunderbirds has been particularly highly praised for its effects (directed by Derek Meddings) and musical score (composed by Barry Gray).[5][6] The series is also well remembered for its title sequence, which opens with an often-quoted countdown by voice actor Peter Dyneley: "5, 4, 3, 2, 1: Thunderbirds Are Go!" A part-live action, part-CGI remake, Thunderbirds Are Go!, will be broadcast on CITV in 2015, the 50th anniversary year of the original.[7]


Thunderbirds follows the adventures of the Tracy family, headed by Thunderbirds", each assigned to one of the five Tracy brothers:

  • Thunderbird 1 – a 115 feet (35 m)-long, hypersonic, variable-sweep wing rocket plane used for fast response and rescue-zone reconnaissance, and as a mobile control base. Piloted by primary rescue co-ordinator Scott Tracy.
  • Thunderbird 2 – a 250 feet (76 m)-long, supersonic, VTOL, lifting body carrier aircraft, which transports major rescue equipment and vehicles to rescue zones in detachable capsules known as "Pods". Piloted by Virgil.
  • Thunderbird 3 – a 287 feet (87 m)-tall, vertically-launched, re-usable, single-stage-to-orbit spacecraft used primarily for space rescue. Manned by astronaut Alan (with Scott as co-pilot).
  • Thunderbird 4 – a 30 feet (9.1 m)-long utility submersible used for underwater rescue. Piloted by aquanaut Gordon and typically launched from Thunderbird 2's Pod 4.
  • Thunderbird 5 – a space station, 296 feet (90 m) wide and positioned in permanent geostationary orbit, which monitors SOS transmissions and relays communications within IR. Manned alternately by "Space Monitors" John and Alan and serviced by Thunderbird 3.[9][10]

Along with the scientist Brains (the inventor of the Thunderbird machines), the Malaysian manservant Kyrano,[11] Kyrano's daughter Tin-Tin (who is also Alan's romantic interest) and Jeff's elderly mother,[12] the family reside in a luxurious villa on the uncharted Tracy Island, located in the South Pacific Ocean.[Note 2][13] In this remote location, IR is protected from criminal and spy elements jealous of its technological superiority and desperate to acquire the secrets of its machines. That Tracy Island serves as IR's base of operations is not evident from the air, since the Thunderbirds and Pod Vehicles are housed in underground hangars accessible only via concealed launch chutes. Visitors to the island are kept ignorant of the Tracys' double life with the aid of the "Operation Cover-Up" security protocol, which physically erases evidence of IR's presence.

While the organisation's principles are Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward and her Cockney butler and chauffeur Aloysius "Nosey" Parker. Based at Creighton-Ward Mansion in Kent, Penelope and Parker's primary mode of transport is FAB 1 – an amphibious, pink Rolls-Royce. The most persistent of IR's enemies is the criminal known as the Hood.[Note 2][14] Operating from a temple in the Malaysian jungle, and possessing abilities of hypnosis and voodoo-like dark magic, he is a master of physical disguise and exerts telepathic control over his estranged half-brother, Kyrano. Exploiting Kyrano's weak-mindedness and inside knowledge of IR, the Hood regularly manipulates the Tracys into rescue missions that unfold according to his own nefarious designs; this gives him opportunities to spy on the Thunderbird machines and – by selling their stolen secrets – become rich.

According to the official scriptwriters' guide, the events of Thunderbirds open in 2065 – a year consistent with the 2060s settings of the earlier AP Films series Fireball XL5 and Stingray.[15][16] The series finale, "Give or Take a Million", is set in December 2067.[17] Gerry Anderson envisaged a timeframe "100 years into the future";[18] this is supported by visual evidence in the episode "30 Minutes After Noon",[19] as well as by tie-ins such as the TV Century 21 comic strip[20] and the Century 21 mini-album "Thunderbird 3".[21] Some episodes point to earlier settings; for example, a wall calendar prop suggests that the events of "Give or Take a Million" occur in 2026.[17] Anderson, however, refuted the latter setting, stating that the year on the calendar was simply a continuity error and that Thunderbirds was "definitely" set in 2065.[18] He elaborated that design aspects occasionally overruled continuity concerns, and pointed out that "no one expected these programmes to be watched even a second time" due to the scarcity of repeats on 1960s British television.[18]

Though spoken as one, the IR call sign "F.A.B." (defined by Collins English Dictionary 2002 as "an expression of agreement to, or acknowledgement of, a command"),[22] was not conceived as an initialism.[23] When asked what the code stood for in 2000, Anderson replied: "absolutely nothing! ... The abbreviation "fab", as in "fabulous", was all the rage and I just changed it a bit."[24] He also described it as the "futuristic equivalent for 'Roger', i.e. 'Message received and understood'".[25]


I started to think that there really ought to be dumps around the world with rescue gear standing by, so that when a disaster happened, all these items of rescue equipment could be rushed to the disaster zone and used to help to get people out of trouble ... I was thinking, 'Rescue, yes, rescue, but how to make it science fiction? What about an international rescue organisation?

— Gerry Anderson on the premise[26][27]

Thunderbirds was the fourth [26][27]

Anderson wanted to distinguish his new series – which had the working title "International Rescue" – from those of AP Films' earlier productions, with stories that would appeal to children and adults alike and a family primetime (rather than children's late-afternoon) timeslot.[31] Of the wish to break with the past, Sylvia explains: "Our market had grown, and a 'kidult' show ... was the next step."[32] The Andersons retired to their holiday villa in Portugal to develop the premise of the 26-episode production, script the pilot, and compose a scriptwriters' guide.[31][33] Sylvia remembers: "There was a division of labour, whereby I would create the characters and Gerry would devise the action sequences of the plot. The storyline was a blend of the two."[33] The decision to cast a widower father and his adult sons as the main characters was influenced by the premise of the Western series Bonanza;[34][35] sensing an opportunity to broaden the series' appeal, Sylvia recommended that the scripts be written for more than one hero.[35]

The series' shooting title was derived from a letter sent from Arizona by Gerry's brother, Lionel, while he was serving as an RAF flight sergeant overseas during the Second World War.[36] Lionel, who was killed in action in 1944, made reference to a nearby USAAF base: Thunderbird Field.[36][37] Drawn to the "punchiness" of "Thunderbirds", Anderson dropped his working title, renaming both the series and the Tracys' rescue vehicles (which had originally been designated Rescues 1 to 5).[36] His inspiration for the launch sequences of the first three Thunderbirds was learning how the USAF Strategic Air Command kept its pilots on permanent standby, seated in the cockpits of their aircraft and ready for take-off at a second's notice.[38]

In the DVD documentary The Thunderbirds Companion, Anderson stated that Thunderbirds was effectively made as an "American show" because circumstances demanded it: AP Films' shooting costs had increased beyond what could realistically be paid back via home distribution revenue.[39] During the character development and voice casting process, the Andersons' first priority was to ensure that Thunderbirds provided trans-Atlantic appeal, thus maximising the chances of winning the support of an American network and the higher viewing figures that the US market had to offer.[31][40] Such was the investment in this illusion that scripts were typed in American English and printed on US-style quarto-size paper.[41]


In preparation for the new series, the AP Films crew was expanded to 100 full-time staff.[42] Thunderbirds was shot at AP Films' Stirling Road and Edinburgh Avenue studios on the Slough Trading Estate using Arriflex cameras and 35 mm film.[43] Filming commenced in September 1964 after five months of pre-production[12][44] – due to the series' technical complexity, a period longer than for any of the Andersons' earlier productions.[37][45] Pairs of episodes were filmed simultaneously, at a rate of two per month, on different soundstages and by different crews (designated "A" and "B") to speed up the process.[46][47] By 1964, AP Films was the UK's biggest consumer of colour film, making use of more than three million feet (570 mi; 910 km) of stock per year.[48]

Alan Pattillo, a veteran scriptwriter and director for AP Films, was made the company's first official script editor in late 1964.[49] This move was aimed to reduce the burden on Gerry Anderson who, while reserving his producer's right to overall storyline and editorial control, had grown weary of revising scripts himself.[50][51] Direction of episodes was assigned in pairs: Pattillo and David Elliott alternated with the less experienced Desmond Saunders and newcomer David Lane for every four weeks' filming.[49][52] Due to the difficulties inherent in setting up takes, progress was slow: according to Elliott, no more than two minutes of puppet footage was filmed even on a productive day.[53] In a press interview, Hill stated that compared to a live-action series, Thunderbirds contained several times as many shots; this was on account of the puppet characters' lack of facial expression, and their resulting inability to sustain viewer interest in shots lasting more than a few seconds.[54]

Lew [Grade] watched ["Trapped in the Sky"], and at the end he jumped up shouting, 'Fantastic, absolutely fantastic! This isn't a television series – this is a feature film! You've got to make this as an hour!' ... I'm glad we did it, because it made the series much bigger and much more important. But it was still a very, very difficult job.

— Gerry Anderson on the format change[55]

Thunderbirds was the first AP Films series to be broadcast in a one-hour timeslot.[55][56] In December 1964, Grade viewed the finished, half-hour pilot, "Trapped in the Sky", at a private screening at ATV's London headquarters.[54][55] He was so pleased with the result that he ordered Anderson to double the standard episode length from 25 to 50 minutes, and increased the series' budget per episode from £25,000 to £38,000 (approximately £442,000 and £672,000 today).[12][55] This made Thunderbirds not only the highest-budgeted TV series to have been produced by AP Films, but also one of the most expensive series ever to have been filmed at the time.[57] The transition presented significant challenges for the production staff, who had previously been filming two 25-minute episodes per fortnight,[46] as eight episodes had already been completed,[58] scripts for up to 10 more had been written,[55] and substantial re-writes and re-shoots would be required to satisfy the longer running time.[59] Anderson lamented: "Our time-scale was far too drawn out. ITC's New York office insisted that they should have one show a fortnight ... Everything had to move at twice the speed."[60] Altogether, the crew spent more than seven months extending the existing episodes.[61]

Tony Barwick, whose unsubmitted script for Danger Man had impressed Pattillo and the Andersons, was hired to assist in the writing of filler material and subplots.[62][63] The additional running time presented opportunities to strengthen the characterisation.[55][64] Commentator John Peel argues that it is "small character touches" that make the puppet cast "much more rounded" and allow the viewer to see "much more of the Tracys as characters than we ever were of the inhabitants of previous series"; he compares the scriptwriting favourably to that of live-action drama.[65] The newly filmed footage proved useful to the writing staff during the development of the first series finale, "Security Hazard": since the episodes "Attack of the Alligators!" and "The Cham-Cham" had considerably overspent their budgets, Pattillo devised a flashback clip show containing only 17 minutes of bridging material to lower production costs.[66][67] Filming of Season One was completed in December 1965.[12]

A second series was commissioned in late 1965 and entered production in March the following year.[47][66] Barwick assumed the outgoing Pattillo's role of script editor and graduated to the rank of full-time writer.[68][69] While the puppet crew re-sculpted the main cast, the art and effects departments re-built the vehicles and expanded some of the standing sets, including the Tracy Villa lounge and the Thunderbird 5 control room.[70][71] To accommodate the filming of both the TV series and the feature film Thunderbirds Are Go, which were being shot side-by-side, AP Films purchased a further two buildings on the Slough Trading Estate, converting them into additional soundstages.[72][73] Since the provision of both staff and studio space was divided between the two productions, filming of the second series – mostly under "B" crew – progressed at only half the original speed (with one episode completed per month).[47] "A" crew lighting cameraman Paddy Seale supervised the film shooting, while "B" crew's Julien Lugrin was appointed the series' new director of photography.[66] After the filming of Thunderbirds Are Go was completed in June, "A" crew resumed work on the series to film what would prove to be its penultimate episode, "Ricochet".[47]

Casting and characters

Regular Puppet Cast[8]
Name Role(s) Other occupation(s) Voiced by
Jeff Tracy Leader of IR Ex-lunar astronaut and Air Force colonel Peter Dyneley
Scott Tracy Thunderbird 1 pilot
Thunderbird 3 co-pilot[Note 3]
Ex-Air Force pilot Shane Rimmer
Virgil Tracy Thunderbird 2 pilot Painter, musician David Holliday
(Series One)
Jeremy Wilkin
(Series Two)
Alan Tracy Thunderbird 3 astronaut
Thunderbird 5 Space Monitor
Ex-motor racing champion Matt Zimmerman
[Note 4]
Gordon Tracy Thunderbird 4 aquanaut
Thunderbird 2 co-pilot
Olympic diving champion[12]
David Graham
John Tracy Thunderbird 5 Space Monitor
Thunderbird 3 astronaut[Note 5]
Astronomer, writer Ray Barrett
Brains Engineer, scientist, inventor David Graham
Tin-Tin Kyrano Maintenance technician, laboratory assistant[12] Christine Finn
Kyrano Manservant, cook Botanist, scientist David Graham
Grandma Tracy Housekeeper, cook[12] Christine Finn
Lady Penelope
IR's London agent Aristocrat, socialite Sylvia Anderson
Aloysius Parker Penelope's butler and chauffeur Ex-professional safe-cracker[12] David Graham
The Hood Criminal, dark magician Ray Barrett

Pattillo and the Andersons managed voice-acting sessions for the pre-recording of puppet dialogue, with Sylvia Anderson in charge of casting.[33][74] Dialogue was recorded once per month (on a Sunday, since many of the cast had other acting commitments during the week), at a rate of two scripts per session.[75] The actors were not required to memorise their lines, instead reading from their scripts; in addition, supporting parts were not pre-assigned to specific cast members, but instead distributed by the actors among themselves.[74] At all sessions, two recordings were made: one to be converted to electronic pulses for the puppet filming, the other to be incorporated into the soundtrack during post-production.[76] The 35 mm tapes were edited at Gate Recording Theatre in Birmingham.[74][77]

In the interests of securing trans-Atlantic appeal, it was decided that the main puppet cast was to be predominantly American and voiced by actors capable of producing a variety of authentic accents; the sole British regular characters were to be Lady Penelope and Parker.[31][40] British, Canadian and Australian actors formed the majority of the cast;[78] the only American to be hired was expatriate stage actor David Holliday, who was spotted by Sylvia in London's West End and given the role of Virgil Tracy.[75][79] Following the completion of Series One, Holliday returned to the United States; English-Canadian actor Jeremy Wilkin voiced Virgil for Series Two and the film sequels Thunderbirds Are Go and Thunderbird 6.[80]

Although Lady Penelope and Parker were among the first characters to be developed, neither was conceived as a major role.[81][82] Parker's Cockney manner was based on a waiter at a pub in Cookham that was sometimes visited by the production staff; Anderson had Graham dine regularly at the establishment to learn his accent.[82][83] Anderson's first choice for the role of Penelope had been Fenella Fielding, but Sylvia insisted that she perform it; she had previously voiced Jimmy Gibson in Supercar, Dr Venus in Fireball XL5 and (briefly) Marina in Stingray.[79][84] The character's voice was developed as a combination of the mannerisms of Fielding and Joan Greenwood.[79] On the subject of Penelope and Parker's secondary, comic relief role, Anderson stated that "we British can laugh at ourselves, so therefore we had Penelope and Parker as this comedy team. And in America they love the British aristocracy too.'"[40] According to Jonathan Bignell, Penelope and Parker's Britishness injects entertaining aspects of "Cool Britannia" into an otherwise exclusively American setting.[40]

David Graham, whom Gerry had known since 1957, was one of the first two actors to be cast.[78][79] He had already voiced characters in Four Feather Falls, Supercar, Fireball XL5 and Stingray; beyond the AP Films productions, he had also served as one of the first Dalek voices in Doctor Who.[79] For Thunderbirds, Graham voiced four main characters: Gordon Tracy, Brains, Kyrano and Parker. Cast alongside Graham was Australian actor Ray Barrett.[78] As with Graham, the speed of his casting was due to the fact that he had worked for the Andersons before, having voiced both Commander Shore and Titan in Stingray.[85] A veteran of radio drama, Barrett was skilled at performing series of voices in quick succession and – further satisfying the Andersons' needs – at convincingly affecting both British and American accents.[78][85][86] He provided the regular voices of John and the Hood, as well as many supporting characters. Villains would typically be voiced by either Barrett or Graham, who negotiated ownership of the parts between themselves.[79] Aware of the sensitive political climate of the Cold War, and not wishing to "perpetuate the idea that Russia was the enemy with a whole generation of children watching",[87] Gerry Anderson decided to go against viewers' expectations by casting the Hood as Oriental and placing his temple hideaway in Malaysia.[11][88]

In addition to voicing Jeff Tracy, English-Canadian actor Peter Dyneley performed the recurring role of Commander Norman, chief of air traffic control at London International Airport. Supporting voices provided by Dyneley were commonly those of upper-class Englishmen.[75] Canadian actor Shane Rimmer, the voice of Scott, went on to appear in, and occasionally write for, later Anderson productions; he was hired after impressing the Andersons with an appearance in the BBC soap opera Compact.[78] Fellow Canadian Matt Zimmerman was selected for the role of Alan late in the casting process while performing in West End theatre.[75] He was hired on the recommendation of Holliday, a friend: "They were having great difficulty casting the part of Alan as they wanted a certain sound for him, being the youngest brother. David, who [was] a bit older than I am, told them that he had this friend, me, who would be great."[77]

Christine Finn, known to contemporary viewers as Barbara Judd from the BBC science-fiction serial Quatermass and the Pit, voiced Tin-Tin and Grandma.[79] With Sylvia Anderson, she also voiced the majority of female and child guest characters. Charles Tingwell, Australian actor John Tate (the father of Nick Tate) and Paul Maxwell (the voice of Colonel Steve Zodiac in Fireball XL5) received no on-screen credit for their supporting contributions.[77][89]

Design and effects

The puppet soundstages on which Thunderbirds was filmed were only one-fifth the size of those used for a standard live-action production, typically measuring 12 by 14 metres (39 by 46 ft) in length and width and no more than 3 metres (9.8 ft) in height.[90][91] Bob Bell, assisted by Keith Wilson and Grenville Nott, directed the art department for Series One.[92] When the simultaneous filming of Series Two and Thunderbirds Are Go started in March 1966, Bell attended mainly to the film and served only in a supervisory capacity on the TV series.[47][93] Set design for the latter was managed by Wilson, who entrusted the more "technical" production design elements (such as vehicle interiors) to newcomer John Lageu.[93]

Since it was necessary for the art department's interior sets to conform to the effects department's exterior plans, both teams closely monitored the other's work.[94] Sylvia Anderson explained how the two crews faced different challenges: "[Bell] had limitations imposed on him by a very strict series budget ... it was more tricky to match the interior with an equally complicated puppet set. [Special effects director Derek Meddings] would constantly push for a more extravagant match to his exteriors."[94] Interior design was complicated by the unnatural bodily proportions of the puppets, and Bell struggled to decide whether the sets should be built to a scale that favoured their bodies or their over-sized heads and hands.[95] He used FAB 1 to illustrate the problem: "As soon as we positioned [the puppets] standing alongside [the model], they looked ridiculous, as the car towered over them."[96] Ultimately, he adopted a "mix-and-match" approach to scaling, whereby furniture was constructed to a size appropriate for the puppets' bodies and smaller items, such as tableware, for their hands.[95]

Bell and his staff paid close attention to detail during the construction of the Regency-style furniture, and carpeting cut to resemble a polar bear skin.[95][96] The realism was heightened by the addition of scrap items acquired from household waste and electronics shops; for example, a vacuum cleaner pipe serves as the launch chute that transfers Virgil Tracy from the Tracy Villa lounge to the cockpit of Thunderbird 2.[92][97] This particular sequence, which sees the Virgil puppet be flipped backwards and then slide feet-first, down a series of chutes, into the aircraft's cockpit, was one of the most complicated filmed for the series.[98]


Two male string puppets (roughly one-third human size): one bald and dressed in Far Eastern attire, the other dressed in a blue uniform with side cap, boots and baldric.
Replicas of the Hood (left) and Scott Tracy (right) puppets. Note the caricatured proportions, with the head oversized in relation to the rest of the body.

The head puppet sculptor was Christine Glanville, who also served as principal puppet operator or "Supermarionator".[49][86] Her four-person team built the 13 members of the main cast in six months at a cost of between £250 and £300 per puppet (approximately £4,420 and £5,304 today).[96][99] Since pairs of episodes were to be filmed simultaneously on separate soundstages, the sculptors were required to make the characters in duplicate, with the result that subtle physical differences are noticeable between originals and their copies.[46] The facial expressions of the main puppets were diversified by the use of interchangeable heads: as well as ones carrying neutral expressions, "smiler", "frowner" and "blinker" heads were also created, bringing the total number for each principal character to five.[44][100] Finished puppets were approximately 22 inches (56 cm) tall (roughly 13 adult human height)[90][101] and weighed between seven and nine pounds (3.2 and 4.1 kg).[44]

Each puppet contained more than 30 individual components.[102] Among the most important was the solenoid that synchronised lip movements with pre-recorded character dialogue. The design required that this device be housed inside the head; as a result, the torso and limbs appeared relatively small.[96] The Thunderbirds marionettes were in fact already the product of increased realism: after Stingray, the AP Films puppet department had downscaled the size of the head and reworked the shape of the body to more natural proportions.[86][95] The puppets' likenesses and mechanics were remembered favourably by puppeteer Wanda Brown, who preferred the Thunderbirds style of marionette over the accurately-proportioned version that debuted in Captain Scarlet: "The puppets were easier to operate and more enjoyable because they had more character to them ... Even some of the more normal-looking faces, such as Scott and Jeff, for me had more character than the puppets in the series that came afterwards."[99] Rimmer speaks positively of the puppets still being "very much caricatures", for it made them "more lovable and appealing ... There was a naive quality about them and nothing too complex."[103] Glanville believed that the Thunderbirds design struck a suitable balance between realism and caricature.[104]

Man in his fifties with greying hair (black-and-white) Man in his thirties with dark hair Man in his thirties with dark hair (black-and-white)
Middle-aged man with greying, blond hair Man in his late twenties/early thirties with dark hair (black-and-white) Man in his thirties with dark hair (black-and-white)
Some of the personalities on whom the likenesses of the Thunderbirds puppet cast are based. Top row, left to right: Lorne Greene (Jeff Tracy), Sean Connery (Scott), Robert Reed (Alan and Virgil). Bottom row, left to right: Adam Faith and Charlton Heston (John), Anthony Perkins (Brains).

Many of the characters' likenesses were based on contemporary actors and other entertainers, typically selected from the show business directory Spotlight.[99] According to Glanville, as part of the trend away from caricature, AP Films was "looking for more natural faces".[96] Jeff Tracy's appearance was based on Lorne Greene,[34][44] Scott's on Sean Connery,[96][99] Alan's on Robert Reed,[44] John's on Adam Faith and Charlton Heston,[105][106] Brains' on Anthony Perkins[86] and Parker's on comedian Ben Warris, a member of The Crazy Gang and cousin of Jimmy Jewel.[44][107] Sylvia Anderson was to bring the character of Lady Penelope to life in both likeness and voice: after a number of test models were rejected, sculptor Mary Turner decided to use Anderson herself as the template for the character.[108][109] Virgil was partially modelled on Alan; when John Brown experienced difficulty in deciding on a particular look, Glanville suggested that he incorporate elements of her design for Virgil into his own.[44][86]

The heads of the main characters were initially sculpted in either Plasticine or clay.[44] Once the general aspect had been finalised, it was used as the template for a silicone rubber mould.[44] This was subsequently laminated in layers of quick-setting Bondaglass (fibreglass mixed with resin),[44] sometimes combined with Bondapaste (a putty-like substance) to enhance the contours.[86][110] Once detached from the mould, the Bondaglass shell was fitted with a solenoid, leather mouth parts, plastic eyes (moved by remote control)[101] and incisor teeth (a first for a Supermarionation series).[44][111] "Revamp" puppets, which played supporting characters, had heads made of plastic.[112] Such puppets started their working lives equipped with only a mouth and eyes; their faces were re-moulded for each episode.[113][114] Particularly striking moulds were retained and, as their numbers increased, photographed for the purposes of compiling an internal "casting directory".[115]

The puppet bodies, which were made of porous plastic, were built in three sizes: "large male" (for the Tracys and the Hood), "small male" (for revamps) and "small female".[44][116] While the male puppetss wigs were made of mohair, the Penelope puppet's were human hair and cost approximately £30 each (equivalent to £530 in 2015).[44][117] Sylvia Anderson, who also served as head of costume design, devised the main characters' wardrobes.[33][118] The wardrobe department avoided synthetic materials, which were less flexible; costumes were instead made of cotton, silk and wool to give the puppets increased mobility.[44] From 1964 to 1966, the department's total stock numbered more than 700 costumes.[119]

During the puppet filming, dialogue was played into the studio via EMI TR-90 tape recorders fitted with RC circuits that converted the feed into electronic pulses.[74] All puppet heads were fitted with between nine and 11 high-tensile, tungsten steel wires;[117][120] these were no more than 0.13 millimetres wide (roughly twice the width of a human hair) and sprayed black to reduce their visibility.[110][121] Two of the wires relayed the pulses from the tape recorder to the solenoid, completing the Supermarionation process.[74] To make the wires even less noticeable, the floor puppeteers would also apply powder paint that matched the background colours of the set.[46] Glanville explained the time-consuming nature of the preparation: "[The puppeteers] used to spend over half an hour on each shot getting rid of these wires, looking through the camera, puffing a bit more [paint] here, anti-flare there; and, I mean, it's very depressing when somebody will say to us, 'Of course the wires showed.'"[53] Using a hand-held cruciform, and assisted by a viewfinder-powered CCTV feedback system, the operators co-ordinated the puppets' movements from a gantry 12 feet (3.7 m) above the studio floor.[43] As filming progressed, the puppeteers started to dispense with wires and control the puppets from the studio floor using rods.[122][123]

It was difficult for puppets to get in and out of vehicles without a great deal of trouble. Since we always tried to minimise walking, we'd show the puppets taking one step only, then promptly cut. Through interspersing the programmes with "meanwhile" scenes – that is, showing what else was going on in the story at the same time – we would then cut back to the puppet who was now already in his craft.

— Alan Pattillo on puppet movement[124]

The puppets were unable to walk convincingly – they were too light, and their lower-body articulation was limited to one control wire per leg. Consequently, scenes requiring them to move were filmed from the waist up rather than in full shot; a floor puppeteer, holding the legs below the level of the camera, simulated motion using a "bobbing" action.[67][105] Alternatively, the necessity of filming complex walking shots was removed altogether: in an interview for New Scientist, director of photography and set designer John Read[81] spoke of the advantages of circumventing the puppet's lack of agility "so that they appear, for example, to walk through doors (although the control wires make this impossible) or pick up a coffee cup (although their fingers are not in fact jointed)."[125] Since the puppeteers could not make jointed hands and feet using 1960s technology, live-action shots of human hands were inserted whenever scripts called for moments of increased dexterity (for example, pushing a button).[126] On occasion, such shots required the creation of a life-sized reproduction of the puppet's costume; the hand typically belonged to one of the wardrobe assistants.[117] The problem of limited mobility was also avoided by having the characters frequently use vehicles, from the Thunderbirds themselves to IR's "Hover Bikes", which allow for swift movement over rough terrain.[126]

Special effects

The director of effects on all AP Films series from Supercar to UFO was Derek Meddings, whose later credits included the James Bond and Superman film series.[127] Meddings welcomed Grade's decision to increase the series' budget, knowing that it would allow for the filming of more impressive effects sequences.[128] He was nevertheless aware that Thunderbirds would be the "biggest project [AP Films] had worked on", and soon found himself struggling to satisfy the demands made of him with the single effects filming unit used for Stingray.[49][129] Meddings therefore established a second unit under technician Brian Johncock, and a third exclusively for air-to-air flying sequences; this expansion increased AP Films' total number of crews and soundstages to five.[49][61]

A typical episode of Thunderbirds contained approximately 100 special effects shots; according to Read, this accounted for up to half a finished episode's footage.[1][130] Meddings' team typically completed at least a dozen shots per day.[131][132] In all, the effects department numbered more than 50 staff;[133] a new addition was Mike Trim, who became Meddings' storyboard artist and assistant in designing the vehicles and buildings that populate the world of Thunderbirds – in particular, the Thunderbird 2 Pod Vehicles.[49][134] Collaboration between the puppet and effects departments was rare, although the latter supplied the gunpowder necessary for shooting puppet gunfights.[135]

Meddings and Trim pioneered an "organic" design technique, informally known as "gubbins", whereby exteriors of models and sets were customised with parts drawn from model kits and other products, such as children's toys.[136][137] In addition, models and sets were "dirtied down" with powder paint or pencil lead to create a used appearance.[138][139] Toy cars and vans doubled as their full-sized counterparts in long shot; for added realism, scale vehicle models were equipped with basic steering and suspension.[140][141] Miniature fans and Jetex chemical pellets (capable of issuing jets of air or chemical exhaust) were attached to vehicle undersides to simulate dust trails.[50][141] Among Meddings' technical innovations for Thunderbirds was a closed, cyclical effects stage named the "rolling road".[43][142] Consisting of two or more loops of painted canvas running at different speeds, this invention enabled shots of moving vehicles and aircraft to be filmed on a set that was essentially static; the result was easier to light and film, and made more efficient use of the limited shooting space.[43][143] During the filming of airborne aircraft sequences, mounted on the counterpart "rolling sky", smoke was fanned across the stage to simulate passing clouds.[43]

A mansion with two adjacent wings, with a gravel drive and lawn in front
Stourhead House, designed in the Palladian style by Colen Campbell, provided the inspiration for the look of Creighton-Ward Mansion.[144]

Among Meddings' first jobs during pre-production was to film stock footage of the Thunderbird machines (including their launches and flight) and main locations: Tracy Island and Creighton-Ward Mansion.[142][145] The completed island model was a composite of more than a dozen smaller sets that could be separated from the whole and filmed individually.[146] The mansion's architecture was based on that of Stourhead House, located on the Stourhead Estate in Wiltshire.[144] Since head designer Reg Hill was already serving as associate producer, Meddings was further tasked with designing the Thunderbird fleet and FAB 1.[31] On his arrival at AP Films, Trim's first duty was to convert Meddings' three-dimensional concepts into technical blueprints and side-view elevations,[147][138] from which the company Master Models of Middlesex built scale models of the six major vehicles.[147][36] Models and puppet sets combined, more than 200 versions of the Thunderbird machines were made.[148]

During the conception and filming of the Thunderbird machines, Meddings' first priorities were realism and believability.[149] With the exception of Thunderbird 5, the vehicle models were built to three or four scales.[150] Meddings' swing-wing concept for Thunderbird 1 evolved from a wish to create an aircraft that appeared "more dynamic" than a fixed-wing, or rocket-like, vehicle.[151] He was not satisfied with the prototype of Thunderbird 2 (which was originally to have been blue instead of green) until he inverted the wings, commenting: "... at the time, all aircraft had swept-back wings. I only did it to be different."[36] This decision was not influenced by any expert mechanical knowledge on Meddings' part – "The model just looked better that way."[152][153] Built from balsa wood, the 3.5-foot (1.1 m)-long Thunderbird 2 was both Anderson's and Meddings' favourite of all the filming models;[154][155] nevertheless, Meddings considered it "less glamorous" than Thunderbird 1, which he believed was "upstaged" whenever the two vehicles appeared in the same shot.[151] He described the launch of Thunderbird 2 as "probably the most memorable effects sequence" that his team devised for any of the Andersons' productions.[153]

Schematic of a Soyuz space rocket
The shape of Thunderbird 3 was influenced by the Soviet Soyuz rocket.[36]

The largest model of Thunderbird 3, whose design was inspired by the Russian Soyuz rocket, was six feet (1.8 m) tall.[36] The shape of Thunderbird 5, the most difficult vehicle for Meddings to visualise, was based on the Tracy Island Round House; since most of the space station's appearances were provided by stock footage, its model was filmed only a few times.[95][156] Thunderbird 4 was particularly difficult to shoot: since the submarine was of a scale inconsistent with the water in the filming tank, inventive camera angles and fast editing were employed to create a sense of realistic perspective.[157] The other Pod Vehicles were designed on an episode-by-episode basis and built from balsa wood, Jelutong wood or fibreglass.[157][158] To save time and costs, other minor vehicles were made in-house from 124-scale radio-controlled model kits.[36][138]

Since the puppets of Penelope and Parker would need to fit inside, the largest of all the filming models was the 13-scale FAB 1.[36] Both the colour and the name of the Rolls-Royce (like IR's radio code, derived from "fabulous") were chosen by Sylvia Anderson.[159] At seven feet (2.1 m) long, the plywood FAB 1 cost £2,500 to build (approximately £44,000 today).[95] Rolls-Royce Ltd. supervised the construction and supplied AP Films with a genuine radiator grille for close-up shots of the front of the car;[160][161] in return, the company stipulated that a Spirit of Ecstasy be fitted to the chassis and that references to the brand name in character dialogue avoid abbreviations such as "Rolls".[160][162]

Scale explosions were created using substances such as fuller's earth, petrol jelly, magnesium strips and Cordtex explosive.[53][163] Originally filmed at up to 120 frames per second (f.p.s.), explosion shots were slowed down to the standard 24 f.p.s. during post-production to increase the apparent length and size of the detonations.[39][164] For rocket launches and landings, gunpowder canisters were supplied by an outside firm.[164] Rocket firing was accomplished electronically by passing current down tungsten wires; the same wires enabled a crewmember, positioned on a gantry with a cruciform, to "fly" the model.[61] By far the most unwieldy model was Thunderbird 2, which Meddings remembered as being "awful" to fly.[152][155] A combination of unpredictable rockets and weak wiring frequently resulted in damage; should the former be slow to ignite, the electrical current quickly caused the latter to overheat and snap, risking damage to the model and causing a fire hazard.[152][165] In addition, conditions above the studio floor were dangerous due to the heat of the studio lights and the smoke from burnt-out canisters.[52] Although many of the aircraft exhaust sound effects used in the series were drawn from an audio library, some were specially recorded at a Red Arrows display at RAF Little Rissington, Gloucestershire.[166][167]

By early 1966, Meddings' commitments were divided between Series Two and Thunderbirds Are Go.[66] While Meddings worked on the film, responsibility for the TV effects was passed to camera operator Jimmy Elliott.[93] By this stage, the basic frame of Thunderbird 2 had undergone so many repairs that the whole model had needed to be rebuilt.[168] Meddings was displeased with the result, noting that the replacement was "not only the wrong colour; it was a completely different shape ... I never felt our model-makers managed to recapture the look of the original."[168]

The series has been especially well praised for the quality of its effects. Jim Sangster and Paul Condon, writers of Collins Telly Guide, consider the model work "uniformly impressive";[5] to Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping, writers of The Guinness Book of Classic British TV, the effects are "way beyond anything seen on TV previously".[169] Impressed by their contributions to Thunderbirds, director Stanley Kubrick employed several members of the AP Films effects department as supervisors for his 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.[170][171] Critic David Garland suggests that the challenge facing the effects department was of striking a balance between the "conventional science-fiction imperative of the 'futuristic'" and the "seeping hyper-realist concerns mandated by the Andersons' approach to the puppets".[172]

Title sequence

The title sequence, storyboarded by Gerry Anderson, is made up of two parts. It opens with a countdown of "5, 4, 3, 2, 1: Thunderbirds Are Go!", provided by voice actor Peter Dyneley (in character as Jeff Tracy).[54] This is synchronised with zoom-out shots of the Thunderbird machines in reverse numerical order, followed by a moving title superimposed on a stormy sky and accompanied by a lightning bolt and clap of thunder. In a departure from Stingray, which is introduced by a series of effects shots taken from stock footage, the Thunderbirds title sequence varies with each episode, with the first part centring on a unique montage that serves as a preview of the episode's plot. Simon Archer and Marcus Hearn, biographers of Gerry Anderson, compare this device favourably to a film trailer.[54]

The second part of the sequence, accompanied by series composer Barry Gray's "The Thunderbirds March", features portraits of the main puppet cast superimposed on various vehicles and settings.[54] Peel describes it as "ostensibly a return to the 'series stars' concept long known in TV",[173] while Garland suggests that such imagery is demonstrative of Anderson's commitment to "incremental realism" via the convergence of human and puppet characteristics.[174] Essayist Jonathan Bignell comments that the use of portraits reveals Anderson's partiality to "visual revelation of machines and physical action".[175] The sequence concludes with an effects shot depicting the destruction of an industrial facility in an explosive chain reaction. During the filming of this shot, the strength of the detonations was such that a section of the AP Films Studios' roof caught fire.[54][67]

According to Daniel O'Brien, writer of SF:UK: How British Science Fiction Changed the World, the Thunderbirds title sequence encapsulates the reasons for which the series has remained popular.[176] Dyneley's countdown is particularly well remembered and has been widely quoted.[177][178][179] Dean Newman of the Syfy channel website ranks Thunderbirds eighth in his list of "Top 10 TV title sequences";[180] Martin Anderson of the entertainment website Den of Geek considers the sequence the best of any TV series, remarking that Gray's score "crashes rapid-fire out of the screen as all the very best bits of the following adventure are trotted out in a fusillade of dazzling edits".[181]


The Thunderbirds score was composed and conducted by Barry Gray, who served as music director for all the Anderson productions up to the first series of Space: 1999. When it came to devising the main theme, Gerry Anderson wanted the music to have a "military feel"; Gray therefore produced a brass-heavy piece titled "The Thunderbirds March", which was recorded on 8 December 1964 at London Olympic Studios.[55][182] The original, lyrical end theme, "Flying High" – sung by Gary Miller, with supporting vocals by Ken Barrie – was abandoned in favour of a variation of the march.[67][182] Incidental music was recorded over nine months, from 18 March to 4 December 1965.[182][183] Since most of Gray's budget was allocated to the earlier episodes, later ones drew heavily on tracks recycled from the series' expanding music library.[182][183]

Peel considers the opening theme to be "one of the best TV themes ever written – perfect for the show and catchy when heard alone".[184][185] Reviewing the 2003 CD release for BBC Online, Morag Reavley argues that the track is "up there with Bond, Sinatra, Elvis and the Beatles in the quintessential soundtrack of the Sixties".[186] "Thunderbirds Are Go!" – the piece that accompanies the launch sequences of Thunderbirds 1, 2 and 3 – is praised by Heather Phares of AllMusic as a reflection of the "flashy, mod side" of 1960s British spy fiction; Reavley describes it as "heart-pumping stuff".[186][187] More generally, Reavley praises the series' "catchy, pulse-quickening tunes", as well as Gray's skill in "musical nuance" and the mixing of genres.[186] Phares highlights Gray's homage to – and divergence from – musical norms, observing that his score "sends up the spy and action/adventure conventions of the '60s very stylishly and subtly".[187]

Commentator David Huckvale believes that both the series' theme music and plot aspects contain Wagnerian homage.[188] He considers the string ostinato of the former similar in effect to a particular recurring motif in Ride of the Valkyries from Wagner's opera Die Walküre, while comparing the Thunderbird machines to the Valkyries themselves: "Their function is more benevolent than those warrior maidens, but they do hover over danger, death and destruction."[188] According to Huckvale, Thunderbirds is typical of visual media that "inhabit a mythical realm ... consciously or unconsciously indebted to Wagnerian idioms."[188] Academic Kevin J. Donnelly of the University of Southampton acknowledges the series' "big-sounding orchestral score", which he likens to that of a live-action film.[189] He also opines, however, that the music is partly aimed at drawing the viewer's attention away from the imperfections of the puppet characters.[189]


In February 1966, it was reported that Grade had been unable to sell Thunderbirds in the United States due to disagreements over timeslots and that Series Two would contain only six episodes.[190][191] In July, Grade cancelled the series after again failing to secure an American buyer.[69][192] The three major US networks of the time – NBC, CBS and ABC – had all made bids for the series, with Grade driving up the price; when NBC withdrew, either due to Grade's persistent demands or because it had lost interest, the other two immediately followed.[192][193]

Production on Thunderbirds ended in August 1966 with the completion of its 32nd episode.[12][192] By this time, the series was massively popular in the UK and had been distributed widely overseas;[194][195] nevertheless, Grade believed that without the financial boost of an American network sale, a full second series would not be able to recoup its production costs.[69][190] He therefore asked Anderson to devise a new concept that, in his estimation, would stand a greater chance of sealing a deal between ITC and the profitable US market.[69][190]


Thunderbirds premiered on British television on 30 September 1965 in the ATV Midlands, Westward and Channel broadcasting regions.[196] Other areas, including London, followed on 2 October; Granada started broadcasts three weeks later, on 20 October.[194][196] The series finale – the Christmas-themed "Give or Take a Million" – was first broadcast on 25 December 1966.[17] Despite Grade's decision to double the running time, episodes were split into two parts for the Midlands and Granada broadcasts.[55][197] In these regions, both 25-minute instalments aired on the same day, separated by the ITN Evening News; the conclusion opened with a short narration, provided by Shane Rimmer, which summarised the first part's action.[198]

Granada first aired Thunderbirds in unedited form with the start of repeats in 1966.[198] In 1968, due to timeslot restrictions, the franchise briefly cut episodes into three parts.[198] The availability of repeats during the 1960s and 1970s varied from region to region. ATV Midlands screened the series regularly from 1966 to 1973; by contrast, Yorkshire viewers received no broadcasts between 1968 and 1976 (due to a decision by Yorkshire Television not to buy any of the Andersons' series).[192][199] Thunderbirds was broadcast on the ITV franchises for the last time in 1981.[199]

In 1990, eight of the 16 audio episodes released by APF Records were converted into radio dramas and transmitted on BBC Radio 5.[198] Instalments were introduced by Gerry Anderson, with additional voice-overs by Rimmer.[198] The success of the radio mini-series prompted the BBC to acquire the rights to the original TV episodes from ITC, and from 20 September 1991, Thunderbirds was networked (transmitted in all regions simultaneously) for the first time on BBC 2.[199][200]

Since the end of the first network run, which achieved average ratings in excess of six million,[70][201] BBC Two has repeated the series six times: from 1992 to 1993 (Series One only), from 1994 to 1995 (seven episodes only), from 2000 to 2001 (remastered by Carlton), and in 2003, 2005 and 2006.[202][203] Other channels to have screened repeats include Cartoon Network (2001–02), Boomerang (2001–03) and Syfy (2009).[204][205] A Gaelic dub, Tairnearan Tar As ("Thunderbirds Are Go") aired on BBC Scotland in 1993 and 1994.[206]

Prior to its UK debut, Thunderbirds was distributed to 30 other countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia and Japan; ITC's pre-sales revenue totalled £350,000 (approximately £6 million today).[66][194] In the year following the series' first appearance, the number of countries increased to 66.[2] In Japan, where Thunderbirds was first broadcast on NHK in 1966, the series amassed a sizeable following and influenced other programmes such as Ultraman, Mighty Jack and Himitsu Sentai Gorenger.[2][207][208][209] The two-part format entered first-run syndication in the US, to modest success, in 1968.[34][190] Other overseas broadcasters include TechTV and Family Room HD (US),[210][211] BBC Kids and YTV (Canada), Nine Network and Foxtel (Australia),[212] TV3 (New Zealand), MediaCorp TV12 Kids Central (Singapore) and RTÉ Two (Republic of Ireland).[213][214]


In 2007, Thunderbirds ranked 19th in a Radio Times magazine reader poll to determine the best science-fiction TV programme of all time;[215] it achieved fourth position in the Channel 5 list show 50 Greatest Kids' TV Shows in 2013.[216] The series is generally considered to be the Andersons' most popular, as well as their best critical and commercial success.[3][217][4] In 1966, Gerry Anderson received two awards for his work on Thunderbirds: a Royal Television Society Silver Medal for Outstanding Artistic Achievement, and honorary fellowship of the British Kinematograph, Sound and Television Society.[192]

For science-fiction writer John Peel, Thunderbirds is "without a doubt the peak of the Supermarionation achievement".[218] Opining that the series is pitched on a "more adult" level than its precursors, he adds that its sense of adventure, "gripping and convincing" episodes and genuinely funny humour ensured that "everyone in the audience found something to love about it."[219][220] Simon Heffer of The Daily Telegraph, a fan of Thunderbirds in childhood, has also commented positively on the series: "All the elements we children discerned in whatever grown-up television we had been allowed to watch were present in Thunderbirds: dramatic theme and incidental music; well-developed plots; goodies and baddies; swaggering Americans, at a time when the whole of Britain was in a cultural cringe to them; and, of course, glamorous locations ... Then, of course, there was the nail-biting tension of the rescues themselves ..."[221] Critic Kim Newman describes the series as a "television perennial".[222]

John Marriott argues that besides attracting "millions of eager viewers", Thunderbirds has been both technically and ideologically influential.[223] In his foreword to Marriott's book, Thunderbirds Are Go!, Anderson put forward several explanations for the series' enduring success: "The show contains elements that appeal to most children – danger, jeopardy and destruction. But because International Rescue's mission is to save life, there is no gratuitous violence."[224] He added that it benefits from a "strong family atmosphere, where Dad reigns supreme".[224] Both O'Brien and script editor Alan Pattillo have also praised the series' positive "family values";[225][226] in addition, Heffer and others have recognised its cross-generational appeal.[221] Shortly before its return to BBC 2 in 2000, Radio Times magazine's Brian Viner remarked that the series was on the point of "captivating yet another generation of viewers".[227] At the time of the series' first run, Stuart Hood of The Spectator praised Thunderbirds as a "modern fairytale"; he also advised that parents watch with their children (because, "like many other good fairytales, it can sometimes be frightening").[228] Writing for Dreamwatch in 1994, Andrew Thomas argued that Thunderbirds is only "nominally" a TV programme for children: "Its themes are universal and speak as much to the adult in the child as the child in the adult."[229]

Jeff Evans, writer of The Penguin TV Companion, argues that the series' longer, 50-minute format "provided plenty of scope for character development and tension-building".[230] O'Brien is less positive in his appraisal of the scriptwriting, asserting that plots "tended towards the formulaic" and were sometimes "stretched to snapping point" by the extended running time.[176] Cornell, Day and Topping are critical; they consider some of the writing "woefully poor" and argue that Thunderbirds as a whole is "often as clichéd as previous Anderson series".[231] Peel, by contrast, praises the series' plotting and characterisation; he regrets, however, that the "tongue-in-cheek" humour of Stingray is less evident.[218][232] Where Thunderbirds improves on its forerunner, he claims, is in its rejection of fantasy plot devices, child and animal characters, comic or "stereotyped" villains, and what he terms "standard Anderson sexism": marginalised in Anderson's earlier series, the female characters of Thunderbirds are more frequently seen to play active – and sometimes heroic – roles.[219][233]

Acknowledging the detail of the series' launch sequences, Jonathan Bignell suggests that Thunderbirds devotes considerable screentime to futuristic vehicles partly to compensate for the limited mobility of its puppet cast.[175] The focus on machines has also been explored by cultural historian Nicholas J. Cull, who argues that of all Anderson's science-fiction series, Thunderbirds is the most evocative of a recurring theme: the "necessity of the human component of the machine".[38][234] He elaborates: "Almost all the stories in Thunderbirds deal with the flaws in technology as some new invention goes wrong ... Rescue is provided by the potent intervention of brave human beings and technology working together."[11] The future presented in Thunderbirds is thus "wonderfully humanistic and reassuring";[11] O'Brien also praises this optimism, comparing the Tracys to guardian Übermensch.[176] Wired UK magazine's Warren Ellis proposes that the series' scientific vision has the potential to inspire a "new generation of mad and frightening engineers", adding that Thunderbirds "trades in vast, demented concepts ... immense and very beautiful ideas as solutions to problems."[235]

Thomas suggests that the world of Thunderbirds is broadly similar that of the 1960s in so far as contemporary capitalism and class structures have survived mostly unchanged; he also observes, however, that wealth and high social status are often presented as flaws rather than strengths.[6] According to Thomas, a contributing factor to the series' lasting popularity is the realism of IR's machines.[229] Newman, for his part, suggests that "the point isn't realism. The 21st century of Thunderbirds is detailed ... but also de-populated, a high-tech toyland".[222] He is more negative in his comparisons of contemporary and future values, noting the series' "square, almost 50s" attitudes to race, gender and class.[222] With regard to stereotyping, Hood comments that he "would be happier if [villains] didn't seem to be recognisable by their pigmentation".[228] Cull, in contrast with Hood and Newman, considers the series to be generally progressive on the subject of race, arguing that its rejection of stereotyping is most apparent where it is actively used to positive effect: he points to the "positive non-white characters" of Kyrano and Tin-Tin.[11] On the other hand, he regards many of the one-off villains as derivative, remarking that such characters are typically presented as "corrupt businessmen, spivs and gangsters familiar from crime films".[11]

Various critics – including Bignell, Cull and O'Brien – have also discussed Thunderbirds as a product of the Cold War era. Bignell comments that the Hood's Far Eastern appearance and mysterious powers draw parallels with James Bond villains and "pervasive fears of China as a 'third force' antagonistic to the West".[176][236] Cull observes that despite many episodes' focus on malfunctioning nuclear technology, this recurring theme excludes the Thunderbird machines themselves: there, "an image of technology associated with the threat of Cold War mass destruction – the rocket emerging from the hidden silo – was appropriated and deployed to save life rather than to take it."[38] Where Thunderbirds more openly adheres to cultural norms is in its subscription to the "cult of the secret agent whose skills defend the home from enemies unknown" (for which it could be regarded as a children's version of The Avengers or Danger Man).[237]

The series' presentation of smoking was the subject of a study published in the medical journal Tobacco Control in 2002. Despite identifying examples in 26 of its 32 episodes, Kate Hunt of the University of Glasgow concluded that Thunderbirds does not actively promote smoking – a view opposed by the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation (RCLCF) at the time of the series' re-launch on BBC 2.[238][239] The BBC rejected the RCLCF's suggestion that cigars and cigarettes be digitally erased from the remastered episodes, stating that Thunderbirds "does not glorify or encourage smoking" and that the activity "is incidental to the plot".[239]


Pink, angular toy car.
Konami 164-scale FAB 1 toy car. In the 1960s, die-cast Thunderbirds vehicle toys were manufactured by Matchbox, Dinky and other companies.[66]

Since the series' first appearance, more than 3,000 Thunderbirds-themed products – including children's toys, print media and audio episodes – have been marketed.[202] To compensate for the high demand for Thunderbirds [56][242]

Acknowledging the series' popularity among children, some UK news commentators dubbed the 1966 end-of-year shopping season "Thunderbirds Christmas".[192] To coincide with the BBC repeats in the early 1990s, Matchbox launched a new tie-in toy range.[199] Christmas 1992 sales were exceptionally high, with the success of the series' revived merchandising campaign surpassing that of the Star Wars films in the 1970s and 1980s.[200][243] In the case of Matchbox's Tracy Island Playset, demand overwhelmed supply; this gave rise to fights in shops and the circulation of black market copies.[199]

A comic strip featuring the characters of Lady Penelope and Parker debuted in the first issues of APF Publishing's children's title TV Century 21 in early 1965.[20][244] A full-length "Thunderbirds" strip appeared a year later, at which point "Lady Penelope" was moved to a sister comic of the same name.[20][245] Thunderbirds, Lady Penelope and Captain Scarlet and Thunderbirds annuals were also published in the late 1960s.[246]

Between 1965 and 1967, APF Records released 19 Thunderbirds audio episodes as vinyl EPs.[21][247] Three are original stories;[247][248] the other sixteen are condensed from TV episode soundtracks, with in-character narration from a member of the voice cast.[198][249] During the same period, APF Publishing released eight original novels, written by John William Jennison and Kevin McGarry.[250] In 2008, the Minnesota-based company FTL Publications launched a new series of Thunderbirds novels by Joan Marie Verba, who secured a North American licence from then-rights holder Granada Ventures.[251]

The first Thunderbirds video game, developed by Firebird Software for the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum computers, was released in 1985;[252] other titles have since been released for the Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance and PlayStation 2. In the second half of the 1980s, the series was released on home video for the first time; PolyGram issued episodes in the re-edited "Super Space Theater" format, its subsidiary Channel 5 Video Distribution in the original production order. Having acquired the rights to the Thunderbirds brand in 1999, Carlton International Media remastered the series for the release of the first Region 2 DVD versions in 2000.[202] In 2008, Thunderbirds was released for the first time on Blu-ray Disc.[253][254]

Later productions

To date, Thunderbirds has been followed by two puppet film sequels, a live-action film adaptation, an animated TV remake and several re-edited presentations for TV and home video release. A second TV remake, Thunderbirds Are Go!, is due to air in the UK in 2015, the 50th anniversary year of the original.[7][255]


Two feature-length film sequels to ThunderbirdsThunderbirds Are Go and Thunderbird 6 – were released in 1966 and 1968. The first was greenlit by Lew Grade before the first episode of the TV series had aired in 1965.[256] Written and produced by the Andersons, and directed by David Lane, both films were distributed by United Artists; neither was a critical or commercial success, and Century 21 Cinema's plans for additional sequels were abandoned.[257][258]

In the early 1980s, episodes of Thunderbirds and other Supermarionation series were re-edited by ITC's New York offices to create a series of made-for-TV compilation films.[259] Branded "Super Space Theater", the format was intended mainly for family viewing on American cable and syndicated TV.[259] Three Thunderbirds features were produced: Thunderbirds To The Rescue, Thunderbirds In Outer Space and Countdown To Disaster.[260][261]

Plans for a live-action film adaptation were first announced in 1993.[262][263] These culminated in the 2004 film Thunderbirds, directed by Jonathan Frakes, produced by StudioCanal and Working Title Films and distributed by Universal Studios. It was both a critical and commercial failure, and was poorly received by fans of the original TV series.[234][264]


The Andersons sold their intellectual and profit participation rights to both Thunderbirds and other series in the 1970s.[265][266] Consequently, they had no developmental control over adaptations of their works.[234][267] The first major Thunderbirds adaptation, and currently the series' only remake, is Thunderbirds 2086.[202][234] In this anime re-imagining, set 20 years after the original, the vastly expanded IR is based within an arcology and operates 17 Thunderbird machines.[268] Both Thunderbirds 2086 and Gerry Anderson's "Supermacromation" puppet series Terrahawks are based on Thunderhawks, an updated story concept devised by Anderson and Reg Hill in 1977.[269][270][271]

Two re-edits, both based on condensed versions of 13 of the original episodes, premiered in the United States in 1994.[262] The first, Thunderbirds USA, featured new voices, titles and music, and aired as part of Fox Kids; the second, Turbocharged Thunderbirds, was syndicated on UPN.[272][273] Developed as a comedy, Turbocharged Thunderbirds preserved most of the changes made by Fox while transferring the action to the planet Thunder-World; it also incorporated live-action footage featuring a pair of human teenagers.[272][274]

Anderson himself put forward several proposals for a remake between the 1970s and 1990s. A 1976 concept, Inter-Galactic Rescue 4, would have followed the exploits of a variable-configuration land, sea, air and space rescue vehicle; it was rejected by NBC.[259][275] A proposal dating from 1984 – T-Force, another modernisation of the original – could not initially be pursued due to a lack of funding.[276] In 1993, it was redeveloped as a part-animated series titled GFI; however, production was abandoned when it was decided that the quality of the cel animation was too poor.[277][278]

In 2005, Anderson affirmed his wish to remake Thunderbirds but stated that he had been unable to secure the necessary rights from then-holder Granada Ventures.[203] His negotiations with the company and its successor, ITV plc, continued for the next few years.[203][254] In 2008, Anderson expressed his commitment to creating an "updated" version, ideally in CGI.[279] Such a production was confirmed by Anderson during a radio interview in 2011, less than two years before his death in December 2012.[280] In 2013, it was confirmed that ITV Studios and Pukeko Pictures would remake Thunderbirds for CITV as a series of 26 half-hour episodes titled Thunderbirds Are Go!, using a combination of CGI and live-action model sets.[7][255]

References, parodies and imitations

A sign for a stage play at Aldwych Theatre reads
Billboard for the mime show Thunderbirds: F.A.B. at the Aldwych Theatre in London's West End

Since its first appearance, the series has made a significant impact on British popular culture and has influenced other TV programmes, films and various other media.[202] The puppet comedy of the film Team America: World Police was directly inspired by the idiosyncrasies of Thunderbirds-era Supermarionation techniques.[281][282] Visual and verbal homage and allusions have also been acknowledged in the films Wallace and Gromit: A Close Shave and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me,[38][202] the sitcom Spaced[281] and the character design of the TV series Star Wars: The Clone Wars.[283] The 1960s BBC sketch comedy Not Only... But Also featured a segment titled "Superthunderstingcar", a parody of Thunderbirds, Supercar and Stingray.[202][284]

The mission of the fictional IR inspired the real-life International Rescue Corps, founded by a British fire-fighter brigade who volunteered humanitarian services to Italy in the aftermath of the 1980 Irpinia earthquake.[259] The charity has since assisted at disaster zones in various other countries.[259] The conglomerate Virgin Group has used the series in the branding of its services: Virgin Trains operates a fleet of locomotives (all named after Thunderbirds characters or vehicles) specifically for railway "rescues", Virgin Atlantic a Boeing 747-400 airliner named Lady Penelope.[202]

A mime show tribute, Thunderbirds: F.A.B., has toured internationally and popularised a staccato-like style of movement known as the "Thunderbirds walk".[285][286] The production, which established a sales record during its 1989 West End run, has been periodically revived as Thunderbirds: F.A.B. – The Next Generation.[268][285]

Cover versions of "The Thunderbirds March" have been released by various musicians and bands, including Billy Cotton, Joe Loss, Frank Sidebottom, The Rezillos and The Shadows.[202] Groups who have written songs inspired by the series include Fuzzbox ("International Rescue"), TISM ("Thunderbirds Are Coming Out"), Busted ("Thunderbirds / 3AM") and V6 ("Thunderbirds – Your Voice").[202] In 1991, Anderson directed the music video for the Dire Straits single "Calling Elvis", which contained footage of Thunderbirds-style marionette puppets.[243][273]

In the 1960s, AP Films filmed a series of Thunderbirds-themed TV advertisements for the brands Lyons Maid and Kellogg's.[287][288] Elements of the series have since been incorporated into advertising for Swinton Insurance, Nestlé Kit Kat, Specsavers and the UK Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, among others.[289][290][291]


  1. ^ Listed by age, in descending order, as stated in Bentley 2005, pp. 53–7. According to Marriott 1993, pp. 116–17, Virgil is the second-oldest son and John the third-oldest.
  2. ^ a b The names "Tracy Island" and "Hood" are not used in the TV series, appearing only in tie-in media.
  3. ^ It is stated in one episode, "The Uninvited", that Scott occasionally mans Thunderbird 5 (Bentley 2005, p. 53).
  4. ^ Zimmerman was cast after the dialogue recording for the pilot, "Trapped in the Sky", for which Alan was voiced by Ray Barrett (Bentley 2005, p. 63).
  5. ^ Although it is stated in the TV series that John and Alan switch roles from one month to the next, John is not seen to pilot Thunderbird 3 in any episodes.
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